Cosmos may be 'inherently unstable'

Particle tracks Collisions at the LHC in Geneva have refined a mass for the Higgs-like particle

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Scientists say they may be able to determine the eventual fate of the cosmos as they probe the properties of the Higgs boson.

A concept known as vacuum instability could result, billions of years from now, in a new universe opening up in the present one and replacing it.

It all depends on some precise numbers related to the Higgs that researchers are currently trying to pin down.

A "Higgs-like" particle was first seen at the Large Hadron Collider last year.

Associated with an energy field that pervades all space, the boson helps explain the existence of mass in the cosmos. In other words, it underpins the workings of all the matter we see around us.

Since detecting the particle in their accelerator experiments, researchers at the Geneva lab and at related institutions around the world have begun to theorise on the Higgs' implications for physics.

One idea that it throws up is the possibility of a cyclical universe, in which every so often all of space is renewed.

"It turns out there's a calculation you can do in our Standard Model of particle physics, once you know the mass of the Higgs boson," explained Dr Joseph Lykken.

Start Quote

This bubble will then expand, basically at the speed of light, and sweep everything before it”

End Quote Dr Joseph Lykken Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

"If you use all the physics we know now, and you do this straightforward calculation - it's bad news.

"What happens is you get just a quantum fluctuation that makes a tiny bubble of the vacuum the Universe really wants to be in. And because it's a lower-energy state, this bubble will then expand, basically at the speed of light, and sweep everything before it," the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory theoretician told BBC News.

It was not something we need worry about, he said. The Sun and the Earth will be long gone by this time.

Dr Lykken was speaking here in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

He was participating in a session that had been organised to provide an update on the Higgs investigation.

Two-year hiatus

The boson was spotted in the wreckage resulting from proton particle collisions in the LHC's giant accelerator ring.

Data gathered by two independent detectors observing this subatomic debris determined the mass of the Higgs to be about 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV).

What is an electronvolt?

Particle interaction simulation (SPL)
  • Charged particles tend to speed up in an electric field, defined as an electric potential - or voltage - spread over a distance
  • One electron volt (eV) is the energy gained by a single electron as it accelerates through a potential of one volt
  • It is a convenient unit of measure for particle accelerators, which speed particles up through much higher electric potentials
  • The first accelerators only created bunches of particles with an energy of about a million eV
  • The LHC can reach particle energies a million times higher: up to several teraelectronvolts (TeV)
  • This is still only the energy in the motion of a flying mosquito
  • But LHC beams include hundreds of trillions of these particles, each travelling at 99.99999999% of the speed of light
  • Together, an LHC beam carries the same energy as a TGV high-speed train travelling at 150 km/h

That was fascinating, said Prof Chris Hill of Ohio State University, because the number was right in the region where the instability problem became relevant.

"Before we knew, the Higgs could have been any mass over a very wide range. And what's amazing to me is that out of all those possible masses from 114 to several hundred GeV, it's landed at 126-ish where it's right on the critical line, and now we have to measure it more precisely to find the fate of the Universe," he said.

Prof Hill himself is part of the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) Collaboration at the LHC. This is one of the Higgs-hunting detectors, the other being Atlas.

Scientists have still to review about a third of the collision data in their possession. But they will likely need much more information to close the uncertainties that remain in the measurement of the Higgs' mass and its other properties.

Indeed, until they do so, they are reluctant to definitively crown the boson, preferring often to say just that they have found a "Higgs-like" particle.

Frustratingly, the LHC has now been shut down to allow for a major programme of repairs and upgrades.

"To be absolutely definitive, I think it's going to take a few years after the LHC starts running again, which is in 2015," conceded Dr Howard Gordon, from the Brookhaven National Laboratory and an Atlas Collaboration member.

"The LHC will be down for two years to do certain repairs, fix the splices between the magnets, and to do maintenance and stuff. So, when we start running in 2015, we will be at a higher energy, which will mean we'll get more data on the Higgs and other particles to open up a larger window of opportunity for discovery. But to dot all the I's and cross all the T's, it will take a few more years."

If the calculation on vacuum instability stands up, it will revive an old idea that the Big Bang Universe we observe today is just the latest version in a permanent cycle of events.

"I think that idea is getting more and more traction," said Dr Lykken.

"It's much easier to explain a lot of things if what we see is a cycle. If I were to bet my own money on it, I'd bet the cyclic idea is right," he told BBC News.

The Standard Model and the Higgs boson

Standard model

The Standard Model is the simplest set of ingredients - elementary particles - needed to make up the world we see in the heavens and in the laboratory

Quarks combine together to make, for example, the proton and neutron - which make up the nuclei of atoms today - though more exotic combinations were around in the Universe's early days

Leptons come in charged and uncharged versions; electrons - the most familiar charged lepton - together with quarks make up all the matter we can see; the uncharged leptons are neutrinos, which rarely interact with matter

The "force carriers" are particles whose movements are observed as familiar forces such as those behind electricity and light (electromagnetism) and radioactive decay (the weak nuclear force)

The Higgs boson came about because although the Standard Model holds together neatly, nothing requires the particles to have mass; for a fuller theory, the Higgs - or something else - must fill in that gap and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos


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  • rate this

    Comment number 580.

    How can you say that! Without science we would still be living in the dark ages. Science and religion are not the same at all. Science can be backed up mathematically and sets out clear rules so people can re-create siutuations. So without science you would not have the computer that you typed your BBC post on to, Do you have faith in your computer ;) TV, Car etc...?

  • rate this

    Comment number 579.

    569 I agree with much of what you say about the UK, but the question is would all of that get any better if you suddenly stopped science funding?
    Science often leads to the development of new technologies which can make massive contributions to the economies (e.g. Silicon Valley in the States) .

  • rate this

    Comment number 578.

    To those worried about the cost of fundamental science, let's keep a sense of perspective. Today's big ticket science facilities may be expensive, but they are also global endeavours: the total cost of things like the LHC and Hubble is less than the cost of a Latte per person on the planet. So by all means worry about world poverty and austerity, but surely savings should be made elsewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 577.

    In short I am a Transhuman, Immortalist, Extropian I am the very model of a Singularitarian.

  • rate this

    Comment number 576.

    Even if the universe is the result of a quantum vacuum fluctuation this presupposes the existence of quantum fields, not just absolutely 'nothing'; there will always be a 'mystery at the end of the universe' -sorry to rain on those who worship scientism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 575.

    Dear 561. I see your point but don't agree. When we live in a world where reality TV, celebrities and completely meaningless features make the news, this is a refreshing change. As people are too benign to engage their brains in the bigger picture, it is great to read some different thinking. Although conceptualised, it certainly beats reading about 22 buffoons kicking a piece of leather around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    Many people saying "What's the point".

    Aren't you simply curious to know?

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    553. cycleguy


    Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.

    Each day so much more is learned about the Cosmos but evidence of deities remains elusive....

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    #561 What use was fire, metalworking or electricity before they became very useful? Unless you have a complete map of what technologies are possible or aren't the only way is to see what comes from it.

  • Comment number 571.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 570.

    two words (three if I was constrained by social norms) - SO WHAT?

  • Comment number 569.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    Wow! But I still dont understand how "anything" emerged from "nothing"? I never will, because it's a philosophical & logical dead end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 567.

    Is this the same sort of thing as the Multiverse theory and Dark Flow?

  • rate this

    Comment number 566.

    "61Global Yawning
    Essentially you are putting your faith in a theory that someone else is telling you. Religious faith works in much the same way"

    A simple experiment: Read the Bible & then a book on electricity. With knowledge on both subjects, try creating a circuit to run a lightbulb by either using the power of prayer or the power of science. I'm sure you will have a constant variable

  • rate this

    Comment number 565.

    '429. coastwalker

    We are on the brink of extraordinary shifts in the way we think. All of this from the sciences of biology, cosmology, mathematics and the computer. A wonderful time to be alive.'

    What that everything we do and achieve is basically futile, as the current universe will be replaced by another at some to come?

  • rate this

    Comment number 564.

    "Joe blogs
    I think it's pretty safe to say that when it comes to the universe most scientific research is simply conjecture. "

    Sure. It's simply the "conjecture" of quantum mechanics that ensures your computer and mine can participate in this interaction and the "conjecture" of general relativity that ensures your sat nav functions.

    It's even a conjecture that you exist at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 563.

    Cyclic theories have been around for ages you are correct. This however is science saying they are closer to proving that is the reality rather than just guessing or having blind faith in something. Without this kind of research we would not be able to push our technology and understanding forward. Usually other things are discovered on the way that help enrich our lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 562.

    For those who believe expensive science experiments are a waste, can they explain what will make the economic pie bigger if not science?

  • rate this

    Comment number 561.

    Maybe it's the Luddite gene in me stirring to life, but this research does ultimately seem fundamentally pointless. It's not as though people are trying to discover a cure for an illness or a means of creating renewable energy, or anything remotely connected with the real problems of the world. How is any of this work going to help the poor, sick, needy or desperate people in the world?


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